Five Takeaways From Tuesday's Special Elections

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Five Takeaways From Tuesday's Special Elections
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
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Last night, the political world was glued to computer and television screens in a manner reminiscent of a general election, to watch returns filter in from a previously obscure congressional district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.  Democrats had high hopes that they could capture the open congressional seat previously held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.  But Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by a surprisingly large margin of four percentage points in a district that looked like it was getting away from Republicans just a few weeks ago.

Republicans are spinning the loss as terrible news for Democrats’ hopes of claiming a majority in 2018, while Democrats insist that Republicans dodged a bullet.  To them, the real story is that they came close in a heavily Republican district – two, if you count South Carolina’s 5th District, which also held an election last night. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  Here are five observations on the elections, and the state of play in the House:

1. Georgia 6 isn’t great news for Democrats. Although these numbers have been tossed about frequently, they probably bear repeating, because a lot of the interpretation of this race comes down to what you think the nature of the district is. GA-6 had been reliably Republican for decades, since the creation of its rough present form in 1992. Indeed, over the course of its existence, it has regularly turned out large margins for Republicans.  In 2012, it was the 83rd most Republican district; there are 157 districts more Democratic than it is that are nonetheless held by Republicans. So, if this is the proper baseline, the result is actually quite good for Democrats.

But it isn’t the only way to read GA-6.  The district has the most college-educated whites of any district held by Republicans in the country, and it swung hard against Donald Trump in 2016. Only 26 Republicans hold seats where Hillary Clinton won a larger share of the vote.  If this represents the outer bounds of where Democrats can hope to win, their path to a 24-seat gain runs through the psephological equivalent of an inside straight.

Which one you think is more important in defining the district is difficult to sort out, but what we can say is this: The district defines one potential path for Democrats to a House majority in 2018.  Democrats had hoped that an Ossoff win would suggest that traditionally Republican suburban districts, particularly in the South, were abandoning their GOP roots and preparing to swing to the Democrats.  Talk abounded of making serious runs in similarly situated districts that hadn’t seen competitive races in decades (and in some cases, ever). In particular, the 18th- and 20th-most Democratic districts won by a Republican in 2016 were Texas’ 32nd and 7th districts, respectively the inner suburbs of Dallas and Houston (the latter was first won by a Republican when an obscure Texas oilman by the name of George H.W. Bush claimed it in 1966).  Handel’s win here doesn’t foreclose that route by any stretch, but it does suggest that it isn’t a done deal.

Perhaps most importantly, Democrats are unlikely to get as clean a shot in any of these other districts as they had here.  Most of the remaining districts will feature Republican incumbents, and few will have a candidate who is able to raise tens of millions of dollars, as did Ossoff.  In other words, this path doesn’t necessarily get any easier for Democrats.

Again, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other routes for Democrats; it doesn’t even mean that this route is foreclosed.  In that sense, winning Georgia 6 was probably sufficient to prove Democrats had a good shot at the House, but not necessary.  At the same time, I think it is a bit of a reality check on those who had thought these sorts of Republican voters would be eager to flip.

2. SC-5 shows another route for Democrats, one that runs through traditionally Democratic, blue-collar areas that swung hard toward Trump. There, Republican Ralph Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell by a surprisingly small margin of 3.4 points. This district had gone heavily for Trump, who carried it by 19 points, but it had gone for Mitt Romney and John McCain by narrower margins.

Moreover, its partisanship wasn’t changed much in the 2010 redistricting.  At its core, it was still the same district that elected a Republican for the first time since Reconstruction in 2010, and where Democrat John Spratt had been considered unassailable for years prior. But once again, Democrats came up just short in a race that largely flew under the radar.

3. The distribution and enthusiasm gaps could be problems for Democrats. A developing scenario is this:  Democrats have a highly energized core of supporters who would walk through a hurricane to vote against a Republican. In polling parlance, they make up the “tens” of enthusiasm (races for which tens of millions of dollars are raised).  The strata below them, however, may be disproportionately Republican, who typically make up a larger percentage of high-propensity voters but are apathetic because of Trump, or at least displaced by Democrats.

This makes it easy for Democrats to overperform in races that slide under the radar, explaining results like KS-4 earlier this year and SC-5.  But as the election gains visibility, those lower-propensity Republican voters become activated.  The problem is that these special elections serve as shots across the bow for complacent Republicans and could reduce the number of Democrats who might sneak through in 2018.

One other possibility here: If those unusually energized Democrats are disproportionately distributed in heavily Democratic or rural Republican districts, it could reflect an especially large distributional issue for Democrats.

4. It is important for the GOP agenda. One significant consequence of an Ossoff win would have been concern about the viability and popularity of Trump’s agenda. It would have imperiled priorities such as the health-care bill, tax cuts, immigration, and other issues.  Ossoff’s loss doesn’t make those objectives a sure thing by any stretch, but it does remove a potential existential threat.

5. It’s early.  This is probably the most important thing to remember.  The 2018 midterms are still 17 months away. The president is unpopular, and Democrats have a sizable lead on the generic ballot (which asks whether people would vote for Democrat or Republican in the fall).  We should also remember that in mid-2010, Republicans lost a close race in southwest Pennsylvania, in the only district that voted for John McCain and John Kerry, which many interpreted as evidence that the House wouldn’t flip.  Instead, it turned out to just be a district where Democrats got lucky: They went on to lose 63 seats in the fall. That’s the danger with dodging bullets; sooner or later, one of them is likely to hit.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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